From a very early age I wanted to be Dale Birkenholz when I grew up.
I started watching birds sometime back when I was three to four years old. My parents embraced this weirdness; but it was a highly regarded Illinois State University Biology professor that over decades of my life mentored me in all elements of nature. As a child I watched him know and share everything he knew about birds. As a younger adult I would venture into the field with him, and at the time I was fit as hell and yet still unable to keep up with this freak of nature.
During the years of my life where I was a bit lost to say the least, together we wondered the timber that ultimately would become the Fraker Farm and I learned all of my trees and plants from him (although my pop had taught me my native wildflowers).
Birkenholz was Illinois' own personal Gandalf. He was ageless; timeless; and knew absolutely everything there was to know about everything. But for Dale knowing it was not enough. For Dale, sharing his vast amount of knowledge (which could truly never be shared in its entirety as it would short circuit any normal person's brain) was his greatest joy and his greatest gift and almost certainly his greatest talent. With a twinkled smile worthy of St. Nick, a soft voice always full of passionate but gentle inflection, body language mannerisms that were completely mesmerizing as he spoke -- in all of my life I have never met anyone like this, and I can guarantee that every else who knew him felt the same way.
Of all that I learned from Dale -- and if I have anything to offer or teach the birding community or the world of nature, Dale was either responsible for it or touched upon it -- his greatest gift was teaching me (and others) how to be fluent in the language of Nature. A person can step outside and be thinking only that he or she has 15 minutes to get to work. Or a person can step outside, immediately and automatically recognize 10 different bird sounds, tell by the air what the weather will be like that day, and offhandedly and automatically note which plants are blooming, or what butterflies are flitting about the car that person is about to step into. And all of that makes the "I have 15 minutes to get to work" part the least important thing about stepping outside.
Dale passed away peacefully today at 5:30PM with his long time best friend Rhea Edge holding his hand. The picture I have here was just taken on December 19th, and in his typical super-human way, neither his body in that picture nor is upbeat mind that shared memories with me showed any sign of the illness that riddled his body.
As a child, you know that you are supposed to bury your parents some day, and I have already buried one. Mentors teach and then they go, as my veterinary mentor Don Wainscott did. But a world without Birkenholz...that's something that I've tried hard to fathom and have failed. I know how many of us will never stop hearing the timbre, passion, and inflections in Dale's voice.
Happy travels, Dale. We all know that if we really need to see you we will always be able to seek you out in the swirling savanna waters of Mother Mackinaw.
It's sort of funny to me -- I'm 48 years old, and I still want to be Dale Birkenholz when I grow up...